How Ukraine is Going to Go
If there’s one thing I learned from Russia, it’s that you don’t have to own something to control it; and that lesson tells me a lot about the banal form of oppression about to descend on Ukraine.
Here in the US, we are obsessed with ownership. Buying stuff = power. It’s unimaginative, and it opens you up to all kinds of risks. The better way, if you can do it, is to syndicate the risk and hold onto the cash flows. Here again, the American way is via ownership: get yourself an LLC or other corporate entity as a firewall between you and legal claims. The Russian way, demonstrated in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, is to create dependency and extract the cash flows through relationships. Boris Berezovsky demonstrated the technique with AvtoVAZ, when, instead of going through the costly exercise of buying the manufacturer, he established an exclusive dealership network to encircle the original company and sell its captive output. No capital-intensive facilities to keep up. Fewer employees. No supplier relationships. All the profit.
Russia’s come a long way since Berezovsky’s day. Gone are the first generation of oligarchs who flourished under the freewheeling I-don’t-care laissez-faire of Yeltsin, replaced by the dead-serious mobster patriotism of the commercialized security forces, who understood that the ultimate form of control is the apparatuses of the state. As Khodorkovsky learned the hard way, private property is no guarantee of anything. That’s true in the West as well, but the myth of control is stronger here. In Russia, they know that there is no control, just a transient privilege sustained by relationships. Khodorkovsky thought his money gave him power. It was the other way around: power gave him money, and he forgot that others had the power to take it away, which they did.
Putin likewise knows that he does not need to “own” Ukraine to enjoy the benefits Ukraine can afford him, just as he doesn’t need to rule Belarus or Chechnya or any of the other places that are beholden to Russian influence. He needs a friendly leader in charge. He needs the ability to create the web of dependency that runs between the security forces, the government, and the wealthy elite of Russia. As long as all those ingredients are in place, he does not care who officially wields sovereignty. It doesn’t matter, just like it didn’t matter who owned a controlling share of AvtoVAZ back in the day.
He also doesn’t need to wage war against Ukraine, at least not as we know it. War in the traditional sense is too expensive in the age of social media. It’s unsightly and inconvenient. No, what you want is the style of war America perfected in the second gulf war (read: invasion). You want precision smart bombs disabling military equipment photogenically. You want a jiujitsu victory: the opponent, rather than suffering themselves to be choked into unconsciousness or have their arm broken, taps three times on your forearm. Yes, some people will still get upset, but not upset enough. You occupy the place just long enough to make the folks who can’t be counted on to play nice with you flee the country. You call a special referendum. You pretend it’s democratic. With friends in high places, you leave before you suffer the ignominy of guerilla warfare. Life gets a little more unpleasant for average Ukrainians, but most will be able to shrug their shoulders and go on with life. Only a small group of elites — the ones who will be seen as cozying up to the wrong people — will need to feel real fear. The West will eventually shrug as well. Yes, it’s sad to see innocent white people get subjected to the fate of the Syrians, but oh well. Deep down, we all accept Putin’s basic argument: Ukraine is merely a Soviet republic. It’s on the wrong side of the imaginary line.
Putin has legitimate reasons to feel threatened by NATO and US hegemony. It would be easy to blame Russia for its neighbors’ desire to join NATO. If you were a Latvia or a Lithuania or an Estonia, would you want to be subject to the whims of a pseudo state run for the enrichment of a select few insiders? No, but the US is scarcely less coercive. If you don’t do what we want you to do, we will apply immense pressure until you do. Look at Iran. They had the gall to overthrow a brutal despot we installed, and we’ve been punishing them for it ever since. We stand by while Israel assassinates their scientists for doing the very thing that gives us and Russia such immense impunity on the international stage: arm themselves with nukes. Look at the history of what we have done in Central and South America. The regimes there know: as soon as you become a real threat to American interests, you will be invaded or fall. Ask Grenada. Ask Panama. Ask Chile. We tried to do something similar to Russia. We destroyed Russia’s social safety net in the 1990’s when we were trying to turn them into our preferred version of a free market, even as we ran NATO right up to their western border. We got in bed with the first wave of oligarchs when we facilitated the voucher auctions to create a new class of private ownership.
Our claims to moral superiority are paper-thin, yet we expect Russia to do what we ask in the name of what’s right; but we have nukes on their borders. When the shoe was on the other foot — when the Soviet Union parked nukes in our backyard in the Cuban Missile Crisis, we found it immensely threatening. Rightfully so.
Russia’s response to the post Cold War order is to tighten its grip on its backyard. It’s almost like a tantrum: you got the Baltics, so fine — we’ll bomb Ukraine back to the Great Famine. It won’t change anything. The clique of Western states that are pretending they are fighting evil will continue to hold firm to the eastern line describing the end of the NATO states. It won’t risk war to stop what’s happening in Ukraine, but what’s happening in Ukraine also won’t do a thing to roll back NATO’s gains.
It’s odd that so many countries continue to lean on the US as a guardian of a fairer, more edifying form of governance. The US is the mirror image of Russia. We also have an unfair system that benefits a select few. Those select few have devised a variety of schemes to privative public revenues and nationalize risk. We just do it differently. In Russia, it’s a personal enterprise, draped in nostalgic patriotism and the occasional public hit job. In the US, it is about individualism and rules and the oblivion of irrelevance in place of murder. Our system is more sublime, less obvious, and it’s winning.
Russia is doing nothing but kick the dog. The historical irony is rich: Ukraine suffered mightily under the Soviet version of Russian chauvinism. They don’t deserve to be the subject of abuse for daring to trust the West more than the same assholes who starved them in the 1930’s. All Russia’s invasion will do (if it’s successful) is ossify the two competing spheres of influence a little more, the threat and presence of each justifying the aggressive posture of the other.
What should truly frighten us is that there are those among us who admire the Russian model. They long for the ability to exercise naked force and punish those not loyal to power. That was likely Putin’s reason for helping Trump. We all unimaginatively assumed he wanted a puppet on the string of kompromat. What he wanted instead was a fellow traveler. With a mobster-like head of state (and a weak-willed admirer at that) leading the world’s greatest democracy [sic], Putin would reveal that the emperor had no clothes. There would no longer be a contest between a principled world order and coercion. We could all see both systems for what they are: methods of maintaining and wielding power. Trump, after all, “tells it like it is.” Isn’t that why his followers like him? He was always fond of saying our hands weren’t clean either. It’s true, but the myth that we aspire to something better has value in and of itself to maintain.
Putin didn’t quite get his wish, but he may get a second chance. Already, Trump and his authoritarian-curious followers are calling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “smart.” You can sense the longing for the freedom to do what he does. Invade, bully, tell the whiny naysayers to shut the fuck up and mean it.
That is the prospect that should really scare us about Ukraine. Not that Putin may bring more pain and suffering to a country with a surfeit of both (although that is a tragic and awful thing), but that the winner in all this is the idea that there is no law but power wielded under flimsy pretexts.
We’re closer to that already than we think, so let’s hope that the real winner winds up being the Ukrainian people. It’s a faint hope, but a real one: that Ukrainians’ pride in their country’s hard-fought and hard-won sovereignty is greater than the cynical motivations of the competing corrupt systems that are treating them like a prize in a depressing tug of war.